February 26th, 2016

The Art & Science of Quality Course Announcements: How to Avoid the Trap of the Info Dump

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student on a laptop

It’s the night before a major assignment is due and you sit down to post an announcement in your online course. You want to remind your students of the impending due date, and oh yes, there’s a great webinar offered by the career center coming up on Tuesday. That reminds you, there’s also that article about the history of Wikipedia that you want to share with them too. Come to think of it, now’s as good a time as any to discuss the lack of analysis you noticed in their discussion board posts last week. As you write about their discussions, you also decide to include one last link to a citation website you hope will help them improve in this area.

You click “submit” and breathe a deep sigh of relief as you see the announcement post, filling half of your screen. You’ve shared tons of resources and information for your students. You check off this task off of your unwieldy to-do list. You’ve done your due diligence as a professor.

Or have you?

In my decade of experience teaching and coaching teachers, I’ve come to think of the above scenario as “The Info Dump.” It’s often well-intentioned. You want to give students all of the information that they need to succeed. Your overarching goal is to help.

I’ve also noticed that this is a time-management strategy for overwhelmed faculty. “I’m swamped for time so let me just blast this all out at once. Phew. I’ve done my part; now the rest is up to them.” In struggling to help manage our own information overload, we pass the overload along to our students. I don’t believe it’s our intention to pass the buck, but you know what they say about good intentions.

What results from these info dumps is this: cognitive overload. Imagine plugging your hairdryer, iron, and space heater into the same outlet in your house. Boom. Our brains and our students’ brains are not unlike that outlet. They have limits. Sweller (1988) developed the theory of cognitive load in instructional design. He suggested that instructors and designers be mindful of the amount and intensity of information we present in our courses and communications. Announcements like the one I described above are well-intentioned bad teaching.

Solution: Plan announcements in advance whenever possible. Develop an editorial calendar to manage content. If you’ve already posted an important announcement that day and you feel the urge to post again, ask yourself if the content can wait a day. Try to focus on one main idea in each announcement. Use the date release tool in your LMS (if available) to manage your time. You can create daily announcements for the week in one sitting and release one per day to your students. Always ask the question, will this announcement do more harm than good?

Neuroscientists also caution against the huge swaths of black text that are typical in many online announcements and communications. Medina (2010) discussed the importance of creating content that requires students to use multiple senses, but especially their vision. He also stresses that the wiring of our brains is set up so that we gloss over boring things. Few things are less engaging than a huge block of black text filled with logistics.

Solution: Use bullets, bold font, colors, and highlighting to create an engaging visual. Create instructional videos instead of text and embed in your announcement through YouTube. Use free online tools like Canva to develop interesting infographics.

Finally, heed the words of brain scientist, stroke survivor, and TED-talker extraordinaire, Jill Bolte Taylor, who says, “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.” A good announcement inspires at least as much as it informs. We are, after all, teaching people and not robots.

Solution: Before clicking submit, ask yourself if your announcement speaks to students’ minds and hearts. Did you tell or did you teach? Remember and appreciate the distinction. How can you inspire your students? Tell stories. Use inspirational quotes. Encourage your students. Emphasize that you are available to help them succeed. Remind them that you care about their success. Teach. Don’t just tell.

By spacing-out content, attending to visuals, and creating inspiring messages, you can avoid the trap of the info dump and begin to develop a sustainable practice of posting quality announcements.

References
Medina, J. (2010). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

Taylor, J.B. (2011). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. New York: Penguin.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.

Karen Costa is an adjunct faculty member, learning community facilitator, and faculty coach at Southern New Hampshire University.

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  • There are two methods in my 16 years of teaching in higher ed. that I have found to be effective when constructing and sending class announcements. (1) I make every effort to keep the message short and to the point. This means that the message needs to focus on one, but no more than 2, topics/themes. However, I often find it necessary to send out a single message covering multiple items, assignments, upcoming due dates, changes to the course schedule, etc.. So in these cases, I (2) make a numbered/bulleted list of these items with a 1-2 sentence description. If there is ever an element of a messages that requires more detail, I will usually send that in a separate course announcement so there is one point of focus for the students.

    • Sound strategy! Do you ever add videos or images?

      • If there is an instructional video resource tied to a specific lesson/module mentioned in the message, then I try to embed the video or at least link to it depending on where it's published.

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